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Photographs of the estate

Here are a selection of images of the estate, some from the LBBD archives, some from valence house. They are full of memories and information and have been chosen by the group as they conjure particular questions and curiosities from the past.

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Six Strange Facts About Becontree

 

While browsing the Valence House Archives on Monday, we stumbled upon a goldmine of information — a thesis by Neil Humphries from 1995 about the Becontree Estate. In the thesis, we found wonderful stories documenting how a sleepy village of plum orchards and farm houses, old Dagenham village, was transformed into the largest public housing development in the world. Built as part of a national housing program called ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ after the First World War, the Estate was part of a resolution by the London City Council (LCC) to build 29,000 homes to accommodate 145,000 people across 3,000 acres in Dagenham, Ilford and Barking. The Estate was supposed to aid slum clearance in congested parts of London (especially East London) and house veterans of the War. Most of the Estate’s early residents came from the East End of London. Building began in 1921 as the first residents moved from London to the Estate.

But not just anybody could live on the Estate–according to this source, “prospective tenants were interviewed by LCC officials in their homes” on the size of their families, their domestic standards and resources. The LCC also “sought to create new habits among its tenants, shaping the behaviour of emerging nation of suburban house-dwellers.” This is evident in the Estate’s Municipal Tenant’s Handbook, which was chock-full of rules and instructions that regulated the most everyday details of residents’ lives. Windows were to be cleaned once a week, parents were to maintain “the orderly conduct of children”, no washing was to be hung from windows, the gardens had to have a certain height and if you wanted to keep animals you had to get the explicit permission of the Council. Here are some strange facts and quotes we found in Humphries’ thesis:

1. When the Becontree Estate was first being built, the Dagenham villagers were apparently quite fearful of the newcomers to their sleepy village:

Rumours circulated [in Dagenham village] that the new inhabitants were dangerous, some young children actually feared the arrival of axe-wielding groups of Chinese settlers. – Humphries

2. For many of the Estate’s early residents, who moved in during the ’20s and ’30s and came from cramped living conditions in London’s East End, it was the first time they had ever had a garden. One East End resident said wistfully:

“I reckon the pubs would be half empty if everyone had his bit of garden.”

3. The planners of the Becontree Estate had neglected to create any community spaces for social activities. There were no schools when the first residents came. Because of the lack of facilities in Becontree’s early days, some locals would try to amuse themselves in strange ways:

Some frustrated tenants “would go down to the old Dagenham Church, to see if there were any funerals, because at least they’d be people there.” – Humphries

4. For many of the Estate’s early residents, coming to the area was like coming to a jungle. As one early resident said:

“The place was a wilderness. It was all muddy and empty. There were builders and trucks, railway lines and piles of bricks everywhere.”

5. One of the many rules in the Tenant’s Handbook was that doors should not be “slammed in a careless manner.”

6. Becontree was surprisingly peaceful during wartime:

The peaceful tree-lined avenues of Becontree contrasted sharply with the smouldering bomb sites of the Capital. As East-end children climbed the corrugated iron fences to search for family belongings amongst the rubble that had once been their home; their Becontree counterparts playfully searched for ‘conkers’ in the more tranquil setting of Parsloes Park. – Humphries

 

 

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“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else”: Notes from the Reminiscence Session

Rita (left) and Emily (right) reminiscing about Becontree.

Rita (left) and Emily (right) reminiscing about Becontree.

“I was born in Forest Gate, and there were five of us in one bedroom. So when we got a house in Becontree, my mother thought it was like heaven with the gate open! When I was 8, Gandhi came to Kingsley Hall, and I actually shook hands with him, and I think that’s my claim to fame.” – Emily

Florence holds a photograph of herself and her father in Valence Circus.

Florence holds a photograph of herself and her father in Valence Circus.

“That’s my father, he started the Dagenham Town Show, George Harris, that was my father. It’s all finished now. He used to go around to all the shops and beg them to put in floats, and he got them to put in floats! He started the town show around 1947.” – Florence

Barbara can remember when the Civic Centre was being built.

Barbara can remember when the Civic Centre was being built.

“I was born in Dagenham, and my parents, my grandparents all lived in Dagenham. We’re proper Dagenham people. I’ve got a photo of the Civic Centre, when it was being built. Me and my cousin used to sit on the steps of the Civic Centre while they were building it and make out we were princesses and that it was our palace! And I can remember the nanny goats and gypsies on Nanny Goat Common. And where the new swimming pool is built now there used to be two cottages, and that’s where my mother was born.” – Barbara

Brenda reminisces about the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

Brenda reminisces about the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

“I lived in a banjo [cul-de-sac]. And Mr Patterson ran the Dagenham Girl Pipers, and he was a neighbor of ours. And every Sunday morning all we could hear was those blastin’ bagpipes! I hated the bagpipes! But as I grew up, I really appreciated them. But when I was a child I used to just put my head under the pillow…But you know looking back it was a real good memory.” – Brenda

Stan remembers the war in Becontree.

Stan remembers the war in Becontree.

“I was born in Dagenham, on Valence Avenue. All my family came from Stepney, I was brought up with my grandmother who took me on, and she had 15 children. My mother used to tell me about some of the people who came here from London, how they couldn’t take it and some of them committed suicide.

When we were kids, Valence Park used to be our hunting ground. We used to spend all our days over here. Even when there was an air-raid, we used to sit under a tree and watch the airplanes. Nobody thought anything of it! That was your childhood then, it was war and bombs. We used to go around picking up all the shrapnel and shell-pieces.

Dagenham has always been good to me and my family.” – Stan

“I was brought on the Estate when I was two years old. We were in [an open-air school] right through the war, they built a shelter on the playground and I spent most of my educating years in and out of the shelter, as I said many times, I didn’t learn very much but I learned how to play cards quite proficiently!

It’s been a good place to live. I’ve enjoyed living here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” – Sylvia

Ellie (left) and Florence (right).

Ellie (left) and Florence (right).

Harry (left) tells Shannon (right) stories of Becontree.

Harry (left) tells Shannon (right) stories of Becontree.

 

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Friday 2 August: Interviewing and filming family life

On a beautiful Friday, Hope and Rhianna filmed and interviewed Stan and Brenda Buzer in the herb garden at Valence House. Here’s Hope’s account of her day:

 

“This morning, I interviewed an elderly couple, finding out about their experiences in Becontree and hearing their stories about the estate. It was great to find out about the area I’ve been living in for all my life, what it used to be like and how much it has changed. In the afternoon, I done the filming for Rhianna’s interview. It was nice to be behind the camera, trying out different shots etc. and again it was interesting to hear what the interviewee’s had to say. I does get quite tiresome standing up behind the camera for such a long period of time, but I can’t say it’s not worth it at the end of the day.”

Hope

 

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On 1 August with Emily and Doris

Thursday saw the start of the interviews, with Jaeden interviewing Emily and Jessica in a last minute switch of roles with Kye interviewing Doris. The two pairs heard some amazing stories: young love on the Becontree estate many years ago, Kingsley Hall helping young mothers and memories of Mahatma Gandhi’s visit. Above are some pictures of Jaeden interviewing and below Jessica’s account of her day with Doris. There aren’t any pictures of Doris up, you’ll have to wait to see her in the film!

 

“I had the unique opportunity to interview a 92 year old woman by the name of Doris who was born in the area before the Becontree Estate was built and remembers the area as farmland and fields. This was my first time interviewing someone and I found the idea quite daunting but as the interview progressed I found it easier and easier to communicate with Doris and find areas in which she was interested to question her on. I was pleased to find out that she was a West Ham supporter, she met her husband at a football match on a Sunday Morning, so I asked her about the 1966 world cup. I enjoyed the experience and was surprised to find out that I had many interests similar to Doris. If given the chance in the future I would definitely do something similar to this project again.”

Jessica

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Exploring people’s memories and linking generations

On Wednesday 31 July 2013,  our “Tea and Tales” reminiscence event took place at Valence House, seeing 19 elderly residents of the Becontree estate (average age was 81 years) attend and enjoy the event facilitated by Thalia Gigerenzer. With support from Patricia and Tina from UCL,  Thalia used a range of techniques, including old snapshots of young people’s portfolios, objects from the museum itself and people’s objects with personal meaning relating to this area (requested in advance with a letter) to get them on board and trigger their memories. This variety of methods provided valuable channels to help them remember, explore and give voice to their stories, as the majority of them were coming from very poor, working class communities and they were not familiar with these kinds of activities. A broad range of memories came to life during the reminiscence session: the heroes who returned from the war and found homes to live, the greenery surrounding their homes, the overflow in the estate, football memories, the pubs, social events and the bandstands in the local parks, Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Kingsley Hall, the tough winter in 1962. The elderly residents also met the group of young people and shared their first memories and at the end of the day young people decided who they would interview based on the stories they heard and who they personally were interested in learning more about. Afterwards, an oral history workshop run by Anna Bexton gave them the interviewing skills and the confidence to start the herculean work to record the life stories of their interviewees in their homes.

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Tuesday 30 July: Workshop about filming

On Tuesday Patricia Gomez and Hannah Roland ran a workshop about filming in helping the group learn the basics of the filming process and get the skills to combine two actions: to record and film the old heroes of Barking and Dagenham.

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Searching the past

Monday 29 July was spent at Valence house, but this time to root around and explore the archives. First, Anna Sexton, researcher from UCL with support from the LBBD archivist Tahlia Coombs and education officer Claire, gave the group some training in how to use archives. Then, the group used the archives to find pictures that were not only interesting to them, but would help trigger memories and stories from the elderly volunteers at the reminiscence event: “Tea and Tales” to be held on Wednesday. Jaeden wrote about the day:

“Today we all went into the Archives and searched through all the collected history of becontree estate picking out key pictures, stories and facts we all found interesting to scan copies of. It was interesting looking back and seeing how much the area we live in has changed.
We also scanned in some images we found of local events such as the old Dagenham Town Show that we will use at the reminiscence session when we talk with the elderly people.

At the end of the day we laminated all our scans and discussed how we would complete the final part of the Arts Award Project Qualification.”

Jaeden

 

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Our start on Friday 26 July

On Friday there was a guided tour of Valence House and then an introduction to the project and to each other. Here’s what Rhianna, one of the young volunteers had to say about the day:

 

“Well today I have learned more about the history of Becontree and how important it will be for everyone in London to get to know more about the history of Becontree.

It has been a learning day for me and I’m glad we had a tour of the museum at Valence House, I’m looking forward to carry on working with Catch 22.”

Rhianna

 

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Today is the day!

Today at 14:00 the project kicks off with a guided tour of the Valence House museum, pictures and more information to follow shortly!

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